President Benigno Aquino asked a royal clan leader in the southern Philippines to order his followers to withdraw as soon as possible from Malaysian land they claim as their own, warning yesterday of legal action or violence as they approach a "point of no return".
Speaking on national television, Aquino told Sultan Jamalul Kiram that his group of 180 followers led by his younger brother and including up to 30 armed men was risking a violent end to a two-week stand-off. Kiram's sultanate has been claiming the land in a coastal village in Lahad Datu district in Malaysia's Sabah state for nearly a century.
"We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point," Aquino said, calling the incursion by Kiram's followers a "foolhardy act" that was bound to fail.
Aquino's remarks elevated the Sabah territorial issue, which has been a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations for decades, to a Philippine national-security concern. The crisis erupted at a crucial stage of peace negotiations - brokered by Malaysia - between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel group.
Kiram's Muslim followers secretly travelled by boat early this month to Lahad Datu, where he said many of their Filipino relatives had resettled for years, to fortify his clan's claims on Sabah.
Malaysian authorities, however, regard them as armed intruders and ordered them to immediately leave or face eviction. Malaysian police have surrounded Kiram's followers in Lahad Datu and gave them until late yesterday to leave, suggesting they would be forcibly removed.
Aquino said that Kiram and his followers would be investigated, along with possible collaborators, suggesting the incident might have been an act to undermine the Philippine government.
"If you choose not to co-operate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm's way," Aquino said.
The Philippines notified Malaysia over the weekend that it sent a navy ship with social and medical workers off Lahad Datu while talks to persuade the Filipinos to return home continued.
Kiram's younger brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, who is considered a crown prince in their sultanate, said that he and his followers would not leave. The village had been surrounded by Malaysian police and abandoned by long-time Filipino residents, who feared getting caught in a crossfire, he said.
"We're not invading this place because it is ours," Agbimuddin Kiram said by cell phone from Lahad Datu. "If the Malaysian police come with guns, we have to defend ourselves."
Aquino said he had ordered an extensive study into the Sulu sultanate's claim to Sabah. He cited at least five clan leaders who claimed they were the true descendants of the original Filipino sultan who was supposed to have had control over the vast territory. Documents dated to the late 1800s, he said.